Good Country People Summary

"Good Country People" is a short story by Flannery O'Connor in which Hulga Hopewell is duped by a con artist named Manley Pointer.

  • Hulga Hopewell lost her leg in a childhood accident. She now lives with her mother in the rural South.
  • Hulga has a PhD in philosophy and is resentful of the "simple," uneducated Christians that populate the town.
  • When Manley Pointer, a traveling bible salesman, visits the Hopewells, he takes advantage of Hulga's intellectual vanity and and allows her to think she is seducing him.
  • Manley, actually a con artist, steals Hulga's prosthetic leg and leaves her stranded in a hay loft.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216

One of Flannery O’Connor’s most successful and frequently anthologized stories, “Good Country People” was published in her first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in 1955. As with many of her works, “Good Country People” addresses themes of good versus evil, the possibility of redemption achieved through an encounter with violence, and the foolishness of intellectual pretensions. The protagonist, Joy, has changed her name to Hulga because that is the ugliest name she could think of. Maimed as a child in a hunting accident, Hulga has a wooden leg—her most valuable possession because it is a mark of her difference. She prizes this because she considers herself more intellectual than all of the “good country people” around her—especially her mother, their neighbors, and finally Manley Pointer, a Bible salesman. Manley steals her leg after seducing her in the loft of a barn, although it is Joy/Hulga who intends to seduce Manley. In losing her leg, she learns about evil, which undermines her previous conviction that “Nothing” is the only meaning in the universe. The story hinges on this powerful irony: in the long run, what Joy loses is her faith but it is a faith in Nothing, which means that she finally gains a knowledge of evil.

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Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857

The story opens in Mrs. Hopewell’s kitchen, which Mrs. Freeman visits every morning to talk about her daughters or other common topics. The women think of themselves as “good country people,” valuing what they consider honest, Christian sincerity in others. Joy, Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, is an atheist, nihilist, and intellectual snob and considers the two women banal to the extreme. She demonstrates her contempt with their chatter and their lives by making more noise with her wooden leg than necessary as she walks around the kitchen.

One day, a salesman carrying a heavy suitcase of Bibles comes to Mrs. Hopewell’s door. His name is Manley Pointer. Although she has no intention of buying a Bible because Joy will not allow one in the house, Mrs. Hopewell invites him into her living room anyway. As they talk, Manley identifies himself as a simple “country boy” and tells her he has a “heart condition.” Moved by his simplicity, Mrs. Hopewell asks him to stay for dinner, during which he “dart[s] a keen appraising glance” at Joy as if “to attract her attention.” Joy just happens to be outside the house when he finally leaves, and as she walks him to the gate, she makes arrangements to meet him at ten o’clock the following morning. She introduces herself to him as Hulga, the name she prefers.

Manley is as fascinated with Hulga as she is with him but for different reasons: he looks at her “like a child watching a new fantastic animal at the zoo” while she views him as a simpleton she intends to seduce and by doing so give him “a deeper understanding of life.” Noticing he has his suitcase, she asks, “Why did you bring your Bibles?” His response, “You can never tell when you’ll need the word of God,” encourages her arrogantly to declare that she has no faith. He, however, is more interested in her wooden leg than in her religious beliefs; as they walk across the pasture to the barn he directly asks her, “Where does your wooden leg join on?” She is annoyed, but moments later they kiss, he pants, and they continue to walk until they reach the barn. When he again raises the issue that she isn’t “saved” by religion, Hulga feels even more superior to him than she did before. To her, he is an ignorant country bumpkin, and she wants to shock him with her lack of belief in God as much as seduce what she thinks is his innocence.

And he at first does seem innocent. When they kiss in the barn loft, he pleads with her to tell him she loves him, but rather than passion she feels pity for his naïveté, so before she utters words of love she reminds him “we are all damned.” Undeterred, he continues to kiss her, never losing his fascination with her wooden leg, which seems to motivate his passion. When Hulga eventually tells Manley that she loves him, he asks her to prove it by showing him where her wooden leg joins to her body. She refuses, he pleads, and she eventually relents. “It was like surrendering to him completely...losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his.” However, once the leg is off, he puts it out of her reach and kisses her more while his eyes “like two steel spikes...glance behind him where the leg stood.”

Without her leg she feels helpless. Manley entirely enjoys the situation, and in fact he has come prepared for this event. From inside his suitcase, where Hulga thought he had Bibles, he pulls out a flask of whiskey, obscene pictures, and a pack of condoms. Now terrified, Hulga loses all confidence and in “an almost pleading” tone murmurs, “Aren’t you just good country people?” ironically hoping that he is just what she most despises in Mrs. Freeman and her mother. His response indicates he believes in as little as she does: “Yea...but it ain’t held me back none.” She screams for her leg, but he dismisses her with contempt. To Hulga’s horror, Manley puts her wooden leg in his suitcase, saying, “One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way.” As he walks away, he has nothing but contempt for her because he, like she, dismissed God from his life a long time ago: “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born,” he says. All of a sudden, her intellectual snobbery in her nihilism becomes reduced to the same as his manipulative cruelty. After he abandons her, humiliated, in the barn, she sees “his blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake.”

The story does not end there, however, for the final sentences take the readers back to Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell, who see him walk out of the woods and across the meadow. They smile condescendingly at what they still think of as his simplicity. Lifting an “evil-smelling onion shoot” from the ground, Mrs. Freeman ironically comments, “Some can’t be that simple....I know I never could.”

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